Police Practice

Harnessing Technology to Transform a Police Department 

By Cam Coppess

Law enforcement agencies strive to enhance the way they deliver police services. To accomplish this, many departments wish to improve how they store and analyze the information they gather 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Often, technology best solves this problem, but limited budgets challenge police administrators to determine the most cost-effective tools. At times, tight budgets prevent departments from prioritizing new technology, but at the West Des Moines, Iowa, Police Department (WDMPD), we found that the return on such investments extends far beyond sophisticated software; the collaboration and cooperation required to implement this technology made us a more effective, proactive agency.1

A recent burglary investigation perfectly illustrates how developing our department’s technological capabilities drastically boosted our effectiveness. When a burglar robbed a local retail store, our officers responded to the call and investigated the crime scene with a wide range of tools: they practiced tried-and-true interview techniques, examined the store’s surveillance footage, and employed our latest technology, such as a computerized records management system and a law enforcement data-sharing site. With these tools, they gathered enough information for our crime analyst at the station to build a six-person photographic lineup that included the suspect’s picture. The analyst e-mailed this document to the officers’ mobile data computers in their patrol cars. When an officer showed the lineup to a witness, the witness identified the suspect, and a judge issued an arrest warrant, all within four hours.

This successful case occurred recently, but we started on this journey to capitalize on new technology to improve police services in 1999. With 65 sworn officers and 22 civilian employees, we comprise a relatively small operation. Despite our limited staff and tight budget, we wished to transform how officers report information from the street into computerized systems, as well as how they retrieve information gathered by others. Also, we needed to build relationships with community partners to increase awareness about our efforts and ask for their support. Eleven years later, we have information systems that identify crime and quality-of-life issues. This allows us to implement successful solutions and reduce crime.

This transformation required far more than the purchase of new software. Undoubtedly, our department acquired more advanced technology, but these tools would be worthless if we did not train our employees properly, collaborate with other law enforcement and government offices, and ask the community for feedback and support.


Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) and Record Management Systems (RMS)

At WDMPD, we began this process by upgrading our computerized records systems. We purchased commercial off-the-shelf products, worked with third-party vendors, and partnered with county government offices to create a system that allows officers to submit information electronically. As a result, we have a central records component that integrates with our dispatch system. Once the information enters the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and records management systems (RMS), we use it to identify patterns and implement initiatives to address crime trends and quality-of-life issues in different locations.

Mobile Data Browser

Next, we improved how officers on patrol communicate with the station by establishing a mobile data connection between squad cars and dispatchers. When dispatchers receive a call, they immediately enter information into CAD and RMS simultaneously. The dispatcher then voices the information over the radio while the system sends the information to the mobile data computers in the patrol vehicles. This two-way connection between the patrol cars and the dispatcher permits officers to receive or initiate calls for service, as well as report information back into CAD and RMS. The mobile data computers also provide patrolling officers with access to the Iowa Online Warrants and Article (IOWA) system and the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). This expedites communication between dispatchers and officers and allows us to track the response time and duration of each service call.

We connected the mobile data computers in each patrol car to the city’s computer network through an evolution-data-optimized modem. To assuage security concerns, we secured our devices through a virtual private network. Through this network, we exchange a large amount of data between the patrol car computers and the central servers; this means that the officers on patrol can access all of the same information systems available at the police station. Also, as many of the tools are Web based, we equipped the mobile computer with Internet access so that officers can take full advantage of these systems from their patrol cars.

Report-Writing Software

“...the collaboration and cooperation required to implement this technology made us a more effective, proactive agency.”

Iowa state officials provided our department with new report-writing software at no cost. With this software, immediately after a car accident, a device sends crash data directly to the Iowa Department of Transportation and citation data directly to the clerk of court.

To expedite this process even further, we commissioned a third-party vendor to interface the report-writing tool with RMS so that we can electronically transmit data from the cars into our central records. The software generates a report that draws from our criminal information reports, crash reports, electronic citations, and electronic warnings. Then, supervisors accept or reject the report through the electronic review process before the information enters RMS. With these upgrades, the system makes information available to the whole agency within 24 hours of the incident.

A depiction of helpful digital software.

The report-writing software also generates a field interview report. Here, officers document any suspicious information they discover during an interview or any event they deem notable but that does not fit into a specific category in other paperwork. Our personnel review this data daily to examine if it correlates with any larger crime trends.

Backup Database

In addition to the data in RMS, we store electronic images of the reports in a second database. This system mitigates the risk of losing our data if one database collapses. It also allows personnel to search for information in new ways and even produces a hard copy report. This duplication reduces employees’ fears of technology failure connected with transitioning to a paperless world.

Crime Analysis

After we implemented this new technology, we needed an employee who would manage and operate these new tools full-time; therefore, we hired a crime analyst to mine the data to discover patterns and trends in criminal behavior. To make our analyst as productive as possible, we provided her with an even more sophisticated version of our technology she works with powerful software that mines our data in greater detail. We also wanted the rest of the department to learn from our analyst’s assessments, so we worked with vendors to set up an automated process that plots this crime data on an electronic map. We then purchased a Web-based tool that makes this crime map available to all users, whether in the station or a patrol car.

Once a month, we meet to review this crime data and discuss ongoing trends. Officers must be prepared to speak about worrisome patterns and steps they have taken to reverse the trends. This meeting serves as a great communication tool because it allows all areas of the department to stay abreast of current challenges and offer solutions.

The crime analyst also helps keep these tools relevant to the daily tasks of officers. At the monthly meeting, she presents a report that indicates when we received service calls, what departments they pertained to, and what reports were authored; she even breaks down the calls by both time of day and police territory or geographic location. This keeps our officers informed and gets more employees to use the tools on their own. The crime analyst’s presentation also reminds officers of the tools available to assist them with more efficient information gathering.

Geographic Information Systems

Our department and stakeholders responded very positively to our crime analyst and crime-mapping project, which led us to create another new job position: geographic information system (GIS) coordinator. Our new coordinator needed to obtain city- and county-wide geographic information to develop GIS tools and, thus, had to solicit help from various government offices that we never worked with previously. The success of these partnerships led to many other joint projects.

The improved GIS tools displayed immediate results during a recent string of burglaries. Our officers identified a suspect and located the individual’s motor vehicle with a global positioning system (GPS). We then created a map that illustrated the suspect’s route on three specific nights. The map indicated that the vehicle traveled to the crime scenes on the same nights when the burglaries occurred. Next, we used the GIS data and GPS device to establish an electronic boundary that alerted us when the vehicle traveled beyond a certain distance. Because the device tracks vehicles in real time through a Web site, it notified us immediately via text message when the vehicle crossed the boundary. Our officers intercepted the suspect as he exited a dance studio that he had just burglarized. Eventually, the county convicted the suspect on felony burglary charges. GIS tools helped us solve not only this case but numerous others.


Interagency Collaboration

For departments to successfully advance their data-gathering capabilities, they must collaborate with other agencies and share information. To boost the effectiveness of our new technology, we developed new ways to share our data and receive information from other departments. Therefore, we spearheaded an information-sharing project among different agencies in the county, including the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and the Des Moines Police Department.

To collaborate with other government offices and law enforcement agencies, we needed a system to translate the myriad types of data used by each office. We commissioned a vendor to build a data warehouse that accepts information from different systems around the law enforcement community. The Web-based database allows users to retrieve information gathered by numerous law enforcement agencies in different locations. This tool provides a more global view for officers on patrol. If officers stop an individual on the street, right from their patrol car, they can obtain photographs of subjects to identify them. Also, leveraging multiple data sources gives officers a wider range of information about suspects during their investigations.


As we acquired these new tools, we recognized that they would add value to the department only if employees embraced them and used them properly. Our department immediately introduces all new officers to the proactive policing philosophy and tools during their initial 12-week field-training period. We instruct them on how to input information into the reporting systems, as well as how to access the information systems that might help them piece together the puzzles of their investigations.

To train our employees more specifically for each device, whenever we roll out a new tool or software, we hold 1-day training sessions for all department employees. To follow up, during in-service training, we reinforce to officers how to access the information they gather during investigations. We continually instruct our employees on how to analyze crime maps, access the RMS, and reach out to the crime analyst for assistance.

The initial 1-day sessions provide the necessary foundation for the technological overhaul. But, to truly engrain the new tools in the department’s daily operations, we conduct the additional sessions and monthly crime-analysis meetings to remind our employees of the benefits of these tools. Sufficient training is crucial for the success of any technological changes; without a strong commitment from our employees, these new tools would remain underused, and the department never would transition from a reactive department to a proactive one.

Community Feedback

“To boost the effectiveness of our new technology, we developed new ways to share our data and receive information from other departments.”

Before we fully implemented these changes, we engaged the community to inform them of our efforts and solicit their feedback. We first showed the tools to our Police Chief’s Advisory Council, a group of community members who we consult about new ideas, programs, and services. We explained our proactive policing philosophy and how our new tools contributed to this ideology, and the group supported our ideas. We also developed a presentation with a slide show and a live demonstration of the crime-mapping tool, and we showcased it to any stakeholder group who would listen. We also demonstrated the crime-mapping tool at area GIS conferences.


Depiction of what a well-placed security camera shows.

WDMPD initiated this journey to improve police services in 1999. As we look back to where we started and where we are now, we clearly learned many lessons to get to this point.

First, a successful organization demands three components: people, processes, and technology, and this means that commercial off-the-shelf products alone will not progress an agency. Department-wide improvements require not just advanced technology but also support from employees and heavy logistical planning.

Second, no one can build a department’s processes and systems better than its own personnel. Therefore, someone or several people in the department must learn about the systems inside and out and put them into practical application. Before a department purchases anything, personnel must thoroughly research the vendor, and someone must serve as the project manager to take ownership of the project and drive its success. Several other employees need to become experts with the new tools to teach others how to use them and to promote their value to other employees. These employees and the project manager should act as that project’s biggest champions and hold some accountability for its success.


Undoubtedly, progressive technology amplifies the efficiency of law enforcement agencies. However, we at the West Des Moines Police Department realized that technology upgrades cultivate a dynamic, collaborative work environment that benefits a department in countless ways. When our department had to consult with outside personnel for assistance with building and rolling out new systems, this provided unbeatable networking opportunities that paid even bigger dividends. Networking with other organizations, whether with government offices, private companies, or even the Iowa state school system, strengthens our presence across the state and grants us access to higher quality sources of information.

Last, when an agency openly communicates with the public about its efforts, it illustrates to the community that the department is flexible to change and that it welcomes their input, which inspires better cooperation. This change greatly contributes to an agency’s ultimate goal: to reduce crime and enhance quality of life in the community.

Lieutenant Coppess of the West Des Moines, Iowa, Police Department serves as the commander of the agency’s Criminal Investigations Unit and its Police Records and Technology Unit.


1 In this article, the author provides his agency’s experiences as a general overview of police technology. No specific product names could be mentioned because of Department of Justice publishing guidelines.